What is Christian Love?
by Steven R. Hemler
As Christians, we are commanded by Jesus to love others. But, what does this mean? In today's culture, love is usually associated with romantic feelings and sexual relationships. Clearly, this is not the type of love Jesus meant we should have for everyone! Also, we often think of love as a feeling. But since we can't decide what we feel, how can we have feelings of love for everyone?
To fully understand Jesus' command to love one another, it helps to look at the Greek word for love most often used in the New Testament. For in the Greek language, unlike in English, there are four different words used for four different types of love. These Greek words are storge, philia, eros, and agape. C.S. Lewis expands upon these in his book, The Four Loves.
Storge is the Greek word for the love between family members. C.S. Lewis calls this affection. Storge is most clearly evident in the love of parents for their children. Most parents are so devoted to their children's welfare that they are willing to sacrifice and do most anything, even unto death, for the sake their children. Storge is also the love children feel for their parents, as well as the love between relatives in an extended family. Storge is a committed, often sacrificial love. It doesn't expect too much, revives easily after quarrels, is unconditional, often overlooks the other's faults and frequently forgives. We often take the storge love of our family members for granted. Storge is the love where we can be comfortable and secure just being in the presence of one another. Just being together in comfortable closeness is often enough.
Philia is the love between good friends. Philia is also called "platonic" love. Philia is a chosen love, because we choose whom we will befriend - usually on the basis of shared interests. Philia is more conditional and less sacrificial than storge. Philia is less willing to continually overlook faults and frequently forgive others.
Eros is the Greek word for romantic/sexual love and is the root of the English word erotic. Eros is the passionate feeling of romantic attraction felt between two lovers. It is also associated with infatuation and lust. Unlike friends who stand side-by-side absorbed in some common interest, eros lovers are normally face-to-face absorbed with each other. Since eros is a passionate feeling and because we cannot decide what we will feel, we usually do not choose this type of love. That's why we say a man and a woman "fall in love." Eros ("being in love") usually just happens. Of course, this does not mean we must always give in to the desires of these passions. While we cannot decide what we feel, we can and should control what we do in response to our feelings.
It is also worth noting that this type of passionate love is often expected to last throughout the many years of marriage. That's why many young newlyweds are often surprised and disheartened when the "fires of passion" begin to decay. However, it is perfectly normal for this passionate love to diminish in intensity over time. What often takes its place in marriage and grows over time is the more secure, committed, and comfortable love of storge. Since feelings come and go, when a man and a woman get married they cannot promise to have passionate feelings of love for each other forever. Rather, what they can and should promise is a commitment of the will to the lifelong good of the other, no matter what lies ahead in their lives.
The final type of love is agape. Agape is the word most often used in the New Testament to describe Christian love. Agape is made manifest in our acts of charity and service for others, including those who we may not even know or like. Agape is unconditional in that it does not expect anything in return. Unlike eros, agape is not a feeling that just happens. Rather, like philia, agape is a chosen and committed love. Agape takes a decision of our free will, a commitment to act for the good of another. Like storge, agape can be a sacrificial and unreciprocated love. It is the love Jesus made manifest for us on the cross. Agape is self-giving.
Agape flows from the abundant, overflowing, and unconditional love of God. After all, God is love. Agape is God's divine love made visible in our good works of charity and service. It is a joyful and spiritual love that grows in our lives by the grace of God. The Holy Spirit is the source of agape love. Agape is the type of love that all Christians are called to manifest in their lives by unconditional acts of goodwill and charity for others, especially the poor and disadvantaged.
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Copyright © Steve Hemler. Steve Hemler has been involved in youth ministry, pro-life political activism and religious education. His articles have been published in America, Liguorian, Church, Modern Liturgy, Religion Teacher's Journal, Liturgical Catechesis, and National Review.